What's an Evaluation?
Teachers and tutors may make a recommendation to a family that they send their child for an evaluation. But the word “evaluation” that we educators understand to have a certain meaning can be confusing to parents. So what does it mean, and why do educators recommend evaluations?
An evaluation is short for a psychoeducational or neuropsychological evaluation performed by a psychologist or neuropsychologist. Evaluations consist of interviews, observations, and testing. The goal is to identify the reasons why a child experiences difficulty in school as well to identify the child’s learning strengths. The final evaluation report usually includes specific recommendations for accommodations and remediation that will help a child to perform to their best potential. The most common reason I have referred families for evaluations is because I suspect a student may have a learning disability. However, the evaluation process can uncover a variety of causes for learning differences such as ADHD, visual and motor deficits, mental health diagnoses, and others.
Educators get to know hundreds, sometimes thousands, of children over the course of a career. While there are broad ranges of what is normal within developmental stages, through experience working with children, we develop a sense for typical rates of learning and typical patterns of behavior. As well, the data we gather from informal and formal assessments can indicate long-term challenges that students have in certain subject areas. When we sense that a child is facing persistent challenges with learning, having behavioral difficulties, or progressing slowly, we share those observations with families. If those challenges continue over time, we may recommend an evaluation to help determine the cause of the challenges and the best way to support the student. It is important to note that a referral for an evaluation does not mean your child is unintelligent. In fact, it is possible for people with diagnosed learning differences have above average intelligence. Many of the children I have worked with over the years have fallen into this category, which educators call "twice exceptional." While high intelligence is an asset, bright children can be adept at compensatory behaviors that help them to conceal the source of their difficulty. For example, some students with dyslexia can be excellent at memorizing words and developing word guessing strategies based on the context of the text. While these compensatory strategies can help in the short term, they are not always efficient coping strategies in the long term, so it is important to uncover the underlying reason for learning challenges and properly address it.
“Why can’t the teacher just tell me the reason for my child's academic difficulties?” is a question that I have heard come up in conversations with families. The simple answer is that, while teachers can be excellent observers, we are not trained diagnosticians; our hypotheses about diagnoses can be incorrect, and ethically, it would not be right for a teacher to attempt a diagnosis. A more nuanced answer is that teachers may, in fact, see similarities between a student who is experiencing learning challenges and a prior student with a known diagnosis. However, there may be more one possible cause for a student’s difficulties with learning. When I was earning my Master of Education, I heard a particularly striking story about teachers’ instincts about a student’s diagnosis being incorrect. In this instance, teachers observed a child who repeatedly spaced out in class and failed to respond to verbal instructions. It looked a lot like the inattentive subtype of ADHD. Yet, when the family pursued a diagnosis, the child did not have a learning disability at all. The child was experiencing absence seizures, a neurological condition that causes sudden, brief lapses in consciousness. There are also times when children have co-occurring learning differences, and it is impossible to tease out whether that is the case through observation alone.
Having an evaluation can make it easier for the professionals who work with your child to tailor their approaches. Teachers are trained to address various types of learning symptoms, but when we know the root cause, it empowers us to better tailor our interventions. I like to use the analogy of a physical challenge to illustrate why this is the case. If you limp into a doctor's office and complain of leg pain, it could have multiple causes, including a broken bone, a soft tissue injury, or arthritis. Some treatments, like ice and avoiding weight-bearing activities on the injured leg, might help you to feel better regardless of the source of the pain. However, your symptoms may indicate that an x-ray of the bone or an MRI of the soft tissue would be appropriate. The doctor's diagnosis would then dictate what intervention you get to treat your limp. There are lots of things that educators can do that are likely to help students who are facing a number of different types of challenges. Preferential seating in the classroom and skills-based tutoring are such examples. However, knowing the specific reason for a child's learning challenge helps educators to better select appropriate accommodations and remediations. I might, for example, have a student with poor reading comprehension. If I suspect that the cause is attentional, an appropriate approach would be teaching strategies for self-monitoring and attending to detail. On the other hand, if the child has been diagnosed with dyslexia, attending to detail and self-monitoring would not be appropriate first-line strategies. Rather, I would need to address phonological weaknesses and challenges with decoding words that may be affecting comprehension. Outward symptoms can point the way toward appropriate learning supports, but they do not always tell the entire story.
It is also important to know that some schools restrict access to accommodations, like priority seating or extended time on tests, to students with diagnosed learning differences. Evaluations may also be a prerequisite for in-school learning support services, like specialized pull-out instruction or receiving assistance from an in-classroom educational aide.
Even more important, students and their families often experience a diagnosis as a relief. My students who have received diagnoses through the evaluation process are all aware that there are aspects of school that feel hard for them, and they often become anxious when they compare themselves to peers in the same classroom. Understanding why school has been difficult can be a relief. Children start feel better about themselves and families feel hopeful that there are solutions they can apply.
While I understand that the recommendation to pursue an evaluation can be intimidating, every family I know who has gone through the process finds it helpful. Hearing that your child may experience long-term difficulties with learning can be difficult news. Yet, the evaluation process aims to alleviate some of that grief and empower families with specific actions they can take to help their child. Overall, the evaluations tend to restore hope and reduce uncertainty while also helping schools, parents, and outside service providers to work together more productively.